THEATRE OF THE ABSURD
Most people are familiar with the phrase “all the world’s a stage,” meaning, we are all actors, performing for various audiences throughout our lives and that life and society are much like a play, one that we all have a role in.
However, the current state of the world brings a similar quote to mind: “The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.” As Connor McInerney points out in our newest column, “It feels like we’re trapped in the Theatre of the Absurd, an avant-garde, illogical, nightmare world.” And absurd is a great word for society right now, where every piece of news seems both terrible and farcical.
So where do we wind up when the world seems to lack order? Well, as Fear and Loathing in the District of Columbia points out, now more than ever, those who work in the nation’s capital head down to the nearest bar. Not only to escape the despair caused by a rapidly crumbling social order with one too many drinks, but also to form a sense of community around the absurdity.
They go to find a place where one can gather with friends, say “cool, we’re fucked. Cheers.” and accept the madness. Through the social act of drinking and bar hopping, those who work in and around government seem to be embracing a form of nihilism, a major tenant of the Theatre of the Absurd.
In the aftermath of World War II, and all of its inherent atrocities, intellectuals began to question the nature of existence and whether life had any meaning at all. The work of Existentialists like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre inspired the playwrights most associated with the absurdist movement.
Some of the movement’s more notable figures included Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco and had a few defining conventions, most notably the way in which they eschewed traditional theater tropes and structures. Their plays often had non-linear or even non-existent plots and lacked any sense of conflict or recognizable cause and effect between scenes.
Characters often lack a firm grasp on who they are or when they are, feeling out of sync with the world. Similarly, characters often lack development, existing in a cyclical nature, refusing to learn, and mirroring the structure of the play itself. Overall, things are often repetitive, illogical, melodramatic, and have rapid tonal shifts.
This is all in service of accurately representing the true nature of reality: meaninglessness. A sentiment that the current culture of D.C. seems to verify. After all, if life has no meaning, if the world is devolving into a nightmare, if this really is the bad timeline, then fuck it, we might as well party.
It is not hard to understand this mentality. In many ways, many members of the political class—those who make their money from navigating the world of government—were recently recast as extras in this play. Like Sisyphus, their job has become a futile labor. Trying to accurately represent the absurdity of the current administration’s illogical tendencies is a gargantuan and seemingly perpetual task.
Of course, all of this is coupled with the stunning performances of the current president, whose cartoonish behavior cannot fully obscure the dangers that he represents to the country and the world writ large.
His character might as well have been written by Eugene Ionesco himself. If we look at the essential qualities that defined the Theatre of the Absurd, and the plays that are associated with it, we can see how closely they map right onto our current predicament.
For one, language is being devalued as a communication tool, while the news has become defined by repetitive, cyclical crises. Moreover, human existence is starting to seem more and more like a precarious phenomenon, which can end at any moment. At the same time, people are feeling more like aliens in a strange world that they no longer recognize as being their own.
The world, which was once a play that we could pretend had some form of coherent plot, is now more akin to an absurdist play; one where all the characters are merely stumbling through roles that used to make sense, but are now illogical.
But maybe, if the whole world could be rendered nonsensical and meaningless by the election of one figure, perhaps it always lacked meaning. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash.” (Read Fear and Loathing in the District of Columbia)
Maybe this is that flash, the realization that the past 200 or so years of history have just been bullshit, and now we are facing that down. However, this revelation does not have to leave us like the many young urban professionals now nursing their despair with one too many cocktails.
It can be the vehicle that drives us into a new world, one where we appreciate each other in the present and form new bonds; one where history is not just bullshit. Rooted in existential meaninglessness is the potential for a radical reinvigoration of society. Of course, this does not preclude having a drink. After all, it is always easier to stare into the abyss with a good friend and a nice buzz.
Ionesco’s most famous play hits home now more than ever. Rhinoceros was written in 1959 and was first brought to an English-speaking stage by none other than Orson Welles in 1960, at the Royal Court Theater in London, starring Laurence Olivier.
The gist of the story is this: one morning in a small, provincial French town, Berenger, an alcoholic everyman, and his friend Jean are having breakfast when they notice a rhinoceros trampling through the village. Then people start disappearing. Ionesco’s inspiration for this tragicomedy stems from having experienced the rise of Fascism in 20th century Europe. Unfortunately, the story could easily describe aspects unfolding in society today. In the beginning, many people argue that the rhino was just in Berenger’s head. Then, slowly, everyone starts transforming. The rhinos reek havoc on the town, tearing apart streets and ruining buildings, yet when the protagonist becomes alarmed, the citizens argue that he should try to understand the animals first.
Of course, there is no understanding the rhinos. There aren’t two sides to this. It’s absurd. Which is something Berenger tries to argue. But still, he is met with replies like, “It’s just a question of personal preference. One must make an effort to understand. To understand is to justify.” Soon, characters begin to eerily echo ideas and opinions that they heard other people say, mostly of those in favor of ignoring, or joining the rhinos. The characters don’t seem to care too much about the rhinos, as long as they aren’t bothering them directly. It’s easy to avoid eye contact, it’s simple to shut your blinds. To change the channel, to look away. Berenger is told to “let things run their course.”
This ‘it’s not a big deal’ way of thinking is an all too familiar mantra. When we turn a blind eye because things don’t affect us directly, we’re accomplices to the crime; we allow it to progress. Which is exactly what happens in the play. Once other people, especially those in power, happily morphed into the horned animal, those remaining found it easier to justify joining them. By the end of the play, the rhinos are alarmingly celebrated as beautiful creatures. A scary thought indeed.
Obviously, there’s a reason they call it Theatre of the Absurd. Using the rhinoceros metamorphosis as a metaphor, the play explored the mass hysteria that can allow a totalitarian regime to come to power. What was it that allowed the townspeople to justify giving up their own opinions? What in their minds allowed them to willingly forfeit their freedom of speech? What is it that allows humans to be pressured by the majority? Why is it necessary to believe the same thing that everyone else believes? Rhinoceros cuts deep into our natural instinct to jump on the bandwagon, to grab a pitchfork and join the mob. It reveals how easy it is to shrug off preliminary warning signs. To ignore the red flag.
“I don’t know if you have noticed it,” the playwright said of his Rhinoceros, “but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example. They have that mixture of candor and ferocity. They would kill you with the best of consciences.”
Rhinoceros seems more like a warning alarm than anything else. We must continue to be the Berenger, to not succumb. We can’t ignore the sound of a rhino stampede. We can’t lose our humanity, because at the end of the day, it’s all we have.